“Parents want their kids’ approval, a reversal of the past ideal of children striving for their parents’ approval.” – Elizabeth Kolbert, in “Spoiled Rotten: Why Do Kids Rule the Roost?” in the New Yorker.
“The model of parenting most of us grew up with was authoritarian parenting, which is based on fear. Some of us may have grown up with permissive parenting, which is also based on fear. Authoritarian parenting is based on the child’s fear of losing the parent’s love. Permissive parenting is based on the parent’s fear of losing the child’s love. Connection parenting is based on love instead of fear.” — Pam Leo
I don’t buy Elizabeth Kolbert’s claim that most parents in the United States raise their children permissively because the parent wants the child’s approval. Why? Because when teens are surveyed, most of them say their parents used physical punishment at some point. That’s hardly permissive parenting.
So while I see many frustrated parents, I see very few kids who rule the roost. But what I do see is busy parents who try to be patient, but don’t know how to set appropriate limits or help their child with the emotions that drive inappropriate behavior. So they bribe or threaten, or they give up until they’re at the end of their rope, and they finally lash out. What does the child learn?
- “When I push the limits, Mom and Dad usually give, so I’m going to keep pushing until I find out where the real limit is.”
- “I don’t know why I’m acting out, and no one is really able to help me with these mean feelings. I must be a bad kid.”
The parent, frustrated and worn out, starts yelling, threatening, and lashing out. Later, feeling guilty, the parent often indulges the child in an effort to repair the relationship.
In other words, many parents veer back and forth between permissive and authoritarian parenting because they don’t know other ways to get their child cooperating. Sound familiar? Then you’ll be glad to know there’s a better way. Here’s your game plan.
1. Use Empathic Limits. Children need guidance. It’s dangerous and rude for your three year old to run around the restaurant. Your six year old can’t punch his playmates. Your nine year old shouldn’t go to inappropriate movies. Your twelve year old doesn’t belong at a party without adult supervision.
Setting limits is hard. But it never needs to be mean. In fact, the more empathic your limits are, the more your child will cooperate: “You wish you could….I understand….And the answer is No…I see that makes you sad.” Every time you set a limit and your child somewhat willingly gives up what he wants to do things your way, he’s building self-discipline. (On the other hand, if he’s forced, he isn’t building self-discipline. Self-discipline is choosing to give up what he wants for something he wants more, which in this case is his relationship with you.)
Most parents worry that they can’t “enforce” their limits if they don’t use force. And with young children, sometimes you do need to pick them up and move them physically. But if you have a close bond with your child, and you calmly, kindly, insist on your limit, your child will usually cooperate. The mistake most parents make is yelling from across the room, which just teaches your child to tune you out. Instead, touch your child, make eye contact, and make it clear that you’re not moving until she complies. Once she knows you’re serious, she’ll do what you’re asking. (For more on setting limits: How to Set Effective Limits for Your Child.)
2. Meet Needs. Your child’s challenging behaviors are a clumsy attempt to meet basic needs. If you can figure out the need and meet it in another way, the behavior vanishes. So if your son makes loud noises when you try to put the baby down for her nap, consider that your intimate moment with the baby triggers his fierce desire to have you all to himself. (How would you feel if your partner went into the bedroom with someone else and closed the door?) Instead of yelling at him, which makes him more needy, “fill his cup” with some concentrated attention beforehand, and then set him up with an engrossing activity like an audio book.
3. Emotion coach. Children can’t understand and articulate their emotions, so they “act (them) out.” So when your child acts out, it’s a red flag that she needs help with her emotions. Create safety by staying compassionate, even as you set a limit: “Ouch! The rule is no hitting. You must be so upset to …….” If you’ve been doing Special Time, and you stay compassionate in the face of her anger, she’ll show you the fear or hurt behind it. The meltdown helps these unruly emotions melt away, so she WANTS to cooperate with you.
There will be times when you’re in such a rush that you can’t take time to help your child with emotions. That’s why you do Special Time daily — it gives kids a chance to surface and giggle out feelings that will otherwise burst out at inconvenient times. When your child is acting ornery, trigger a “scheduled meltdown” at your own convenience. Just set a kind, firm limit and nurture her through the resulting meltdown. But if you repeatedly find yourself too busy to help your child with emotions, you might want to rethink your priorities. This is an essential part of raising children, and without it you can expect your child to be difficult. A backpack full of stored-up tears and fears makes kids rigid and explosive. (For more on Emotion Coaching: 5 Steps To Nurture Emotional Intelligence in Your Child)
4. Manage your own emotions. When our child is sad or angry, most of us feel an urgent need to make those feelings go away. We say it’s because we can’t bear our child’s unhappiness, but it’s really because our child’s upset triggers our own anxiety. We’ll do almost anything to make them feel better, such as:
Distracting. “Look at that doggie!” Even if it works, your child’s upset will surface later in challenging behavior. And you’re giving him the message that feelings are too dangerous to be tolerated.
Negating their feelings. “It wasn’t that bad…What a drama queen!” Of course she’s over-reacting. Those feelings in the emotional backpack may have been waiting weeks for a safe opportunity to surface. The only way to make feelings go away is to feel them so they evaporate.
Bribing. “Don’t cry, we’ll get you a new one.” Bribing teaches children all the wrong lessons, and the emotions will get stuffed in the emotional backpack to surface later in “acting out.”Besides, you don’t want your child to think shopping solves all problems.
The solution, of course, is to manage our own anxiety so that we can tolerate our child’s emotions. How? Breathe and notice your feelings, but resist the urge to take action. Really. Just Breathe. Channel your inner Queen Elsa and Let It Go. The more you can breathe your way through your own upsets without taking action, the calmer you’ll become. And the more your interactions with your child will soothe the storm and invite cooperation.
5. Ditch the guilt. Most parents feel guilty at times. We know we aren’t always the parent we’d like to be. But guilt doesn’t make for good parenting, because it pushes us to make decisionsbased on keeping our child happy for the moment, rather than on what he needs to thrive. You don’t have to be perfect (and you can’t be.) You just have to admit when you were wrong, apologize, and keep trying to do better.
6. Find win/win solutions. Avoiding permissive parenting doesn’t mean you act like a tyrant. That’s just as bad for your child. The more you can find solutions that work for both you and your child, the healthier and happier your family will be. So get clear on what’s non-negotiable for you, and find a win/win solution that satisfies your needs as well as your child’s. If he doesn’t want to take a bath, for instance, can you make a game out of hosing him down outside? Won’t he get just as clean?
7. Stay Connected. Children who feel connected to their parents WANT to behave, as long as they don’t have pent-up tears and fears driving them to act out. If your child isn’t cooperating, the most effective thing you can do is empathize to re-build your connection. No, you aren’t “rewarding” bad behavior. You’re giving your child the reason he needs to WANT to behave. You’re still setting appropriate limits. But because you’re offering empathy, your child realizes you’re on his side, and wants to follow your guidance.
Connection Parenting raises empathic, self-disciplined kids who think for themselves and want to do the right thing. Isn’t that the kind of person you’d like to raise?
This article is part of the series Are Kids Today Spoiled and Undisciplined?